Modder to Developer - TheModernStoryteller

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For those of you following E3's PC Gaming show, you may have noticed a new game that shares some striking similarities to a popular Skyrim mod. TheModernStoryteller, a veteran of the modding scene has spread his wings and announced his own brand new game "The Forgotten City" which is a stand-alone re-imagining of his original Skyrim mod by the same name. Nick (TheModernStoryteller) has kindly taken the time out after his E3 debut to tell us a little bit about his new game and how he made it from modder to professional game developer.


Pickysaurus: First - for those who don't know you - tell us a little about yourself?

TheModernStoryTeller: I’m Nick Pearce, ex-modder, and Creative Director of Modern Storyteller – a game studio which carries the name of my old modding alias. I live in Melbourne, Australia with my wife and dog.

How did you first get into gaming? 
When I was about eight, I inherited a crusty old 8086 PC with a 4 colour monitor and about 64KB of RAM. Since I couldn’t play the new games that were coming out, I had to resort to teaching myself to program GW Basic and Q Basic. I made terrible, terrible games that nobody could or should ever play, but the thrill of imagining something and then seeing it on a screen ignited something in me. Then I left it on the backburner for 20 years while I went down the path of becoming a lawyer.
 
Could you tell us a bit about your favourite games and what makes them so great?
I love open world narrative-driven RPGs, mainly because of the immersion factor, and the freedom to role-play. That’s what I’m trying to do with my own game: create a world that pulls people in for a really gripping, intense experience.

Obviously, given your username, you value stories. Does this extend into written work? Do you have a background in writing or inspirations you'd like to mention?
My creative writing career began with me being punched in the face. Several years ago I was working as a lawyer and daydreaming about being a creative writer one day. I even signed up to a creative writing class, but when the time came to write my first short story, I came up short of ideas. I had to ask for an extension, but I was just buying time. Then I got punched in the face by a complete stranger for no reason, as I was walking to work one day. Inspiration had struck, and I wrote a short story about it – from his perspective, not mine – and it got terrific feedback. That got me rolling. I like to think it somehow removed an idea blockage in my head. I began writing a novel, and I got halfway through it before I realised my real passion was for games, rather than traditional forms of literature. Some of those ideas made their way into The Forgotten City, which is a much better vehicle for the story than a novel was. I really think games are the ultimate medium for storytelling, because of the element of interactivity.

In terms of modding, your Skyrim mod “The Forgotten City” is one of the highest rated quest mods for Skyrim and Skyrim Special Edition. What inspired you to create that mod?
I played someguy2000’s mod, Bounties I, and it was a revelation to me that a mod could be as good as – if not better than – the underlying game. It was extraordinarily well done, and just what the game had been missing. I’ve always enjoyed creative writing, so I decided to have a go myself. I started by making a hallway, which evolved into a city. I remember thinking “This big empty city needs a little something…”... and 3 years later, after 1700 hours of work, it was an elaborate 35,000-word murder mystery set across multiple timelines with 1,200 lines of voice acting and an original orchestral score.

  

 
How would you say you made the leap from modding a game to creating your own, and even making it to your own E3 stand?
Necessity is the mother of invention. I knew I wanted to be a professional game developer, but there just wasn’t anywhere for me to go; nobody I wanted to work for was hiring modders, and there were no game dev jobs in my country. So I took a break from my legal career and set up a studio, made a prototype which landed a grant from Film Victoria, which I used to hire a team of experienced people, and made the better part of a game. I went to GDC (the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco) earlier this year where I met with the US Editor-in-Chief of PC Gamer (who’s a pretty cool guy) and he liked our game and story so much that he invited us to reveal it on stage at the PC Gaming Show. The reveal went so well that we just won an Unreal E3 award for being a small team and making a big splash in a crowded pool of excellent games!



 
Australian development houses seem few and far between. Is this accurate and why? How do you feel about the representation of Australian developers in the game industry?
Yes, there aren’t many well-known Australian game studios. We have a smattering of indie studios, like League of Geeks (Armello) and Defiant (Hand of Fate 1 & 2) but no Triple A studios. It’s mainly because our larger studios, like Team Bondi (L.A. Noire), were wiped out in the Global Financial Crisis, and the local industry hasn’t yet recovered.
 
It’s a shame for two reasons: it makes it exceptionally difficult for aspiring game developers to pursue their craft, and Australia’s economy is missing out on a proportionate slice of a lucrative global industry.
On the bright side, it does make it easier for small studios like mine to snap up extraordinary local talent!

For your Skyrim mod you did the bulk of the work yourself, but your new game is made by a team. Could you tell us more about them?
I’m still doing the bulk of the work myself, out of necessity, and I work something absurd like 70 hours a week. I’m the producer, writer, game designer, level designer, character modeller, animator, actor, social media manager, casting agent, business development guy, book keeper, and in-house counsel, among other things. I’m the only full time person, but thanks to a grant from Film Victoria I’ve been able to bring on some other awesome people, who I headhunted because of their outstanding prior work:
 
  • Alex Goss, a programmer and Unreal Engine Wizard, whose last job was working on Earthlight VR, a virtual reality spacewalk simulation made in consultation with NASA
  • Laura Michet, an editor whose last project was described by the Washington Post as “a great leap forward for storytelling”
  • John Eyre, a 3D modeler and environment artist best known for his work on Hand of Fate 2
  • Michael Allen, a composer whose recent work includes the soundtrack for Armello

From what you’ve told us, your new game announced at E3 is described as a re-imagining of the story from your mod, The Forgotten City. What would you say makes the new game different? Anything more you’d like to tell us about your game?
The game retains all the elements the community told us they liked, incorporates their suggestions, improves on pretty much everything, and adds lots of content and surprises: a new city, re-imagined characters, original lore with fresh twists and endings, added combat and wall-climbing mechanics, an all-new orchestral score, professional voice acting, and custom motion capture animations.
The official blurb is:

Deep underground in an ancient Roman city, twenty-six trapped explorers lay dead because one of them broke a mysterious law. Within, a portal leads back into the past, allowing you to change their fate – or witness their deaths in a time loop for eternity.
Fortunately, hope remains. The Forgotten City offers incredible freedom, inviting players to manipulate the timeline, Groundhog Day-style, so events play out differently. By talking to diverse characters, making tough choices in moral dilemmas, and thinking laterally, you can unlock vastly different endings.
Add it to your Steam wishlist here.



How would you compare working on a mod in the Creation Kit to working on a full-fledged game in the Unreal Studio? 
The difference between modding and game development is like the difference between being a handyman and building a house from the ground up.
 
One of the really big differences is the level of difficulty in creating non-player characters: If you want a character in your game you’re going to have to model it, rig it (put a “skeleton” in it for animation purposes), make animations which sync with your voice acting, and then program the character’s behaviour yourself. As you can see from the trailer for our game, I found a way to do all that, and I did it with very cool software suites called Character Creator and iClone.

"The Forgotten City" is based on the Unreal engine, what made you choose it over the alternatives?
Unreal is a cutting edge engine which makes it easy to create beautiful game worlds, and that was important to me because I want players to feel immersed in and captivated by my game world. It’s possible to make a very pretty game with Unity too, but much harder. I considered CryEngine / Lumberyard too, but at the time I was starting out they were too new; they weren’t tried and tested like Unreal was.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring modders who dream of following in your footsteps? 
Making mods and games is tremendously satisfying. However, most indie games die in obscurity, which is a tragedy for the game developers who spend years of their life and literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and foregone wages. This makes it extremely risky, unless you're independently wealthy, so you need to reduce those risks as much as you can. I wouldn’t recommend taking the leap unless you answer "yes" to all of the following questions:
 
  1. Do you understand what’s involved in making games, and do you have a burning desire to do it anyway?
  2. Do you have a way to survive while making your game, like savings, and/or a supportive partner?
  3. Are you resilient and able to deal with challenges, setbacks, and tedious business activities? (eg. securing finance, setting up a company, book-keeping, contract management, protecting your IP, etc)
  4. Are you are a strong networker? (are you good at forming genuine connections with peers, journalists and influencers?)
  5. Are you a fast learner with a strong aptitude for technology?
  6. Do you have a tried and tested game idea that works remarkably well?
Even if you answered "yes" to all of these, it’s still risky, but you'd have a fighting chance.

Will "The Forgotten City" support mods? If not, would you ever consider making a game with modding support? 
As an ex-modder myself, I’d very much like to support modding if I can. It’ll just depend on how complex it is and whether we have the resources to do it well and provide good tools and documentation for modders.

Now you’ve unveiled this game to the world, do you have any plans for future stories you might want to tell?
I have a some really exciting ideas for stories I want to tell next, but what we do next will depend on the reception of our first game. If it's commercially successful, our next game will be another immersive, story-driven game with a big emotional impact.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, it is always awesome to see one of our community break through into the games industry. We are looking forward to the release of "The Forgotten City" in 2019 and hope to catch up with you again closer to release!

44 comments

  1. shamiro1
    shamiro1
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    Wow that was an amazing and inspiring storry
  2. dickheaddicted
    dickheaddicted
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    "our next game will be another immersive, story-driven game with a big emotional impact."

    i dont know why but this makes me very nervous and excited. ive always been into good story telling games with interactive element, and so far, i dont know if its proper to say this in here, but the only games that able to make me feel "depressed"?, empty, lifeless, sad, etc since from playing halfway of the story, to the ending, even after a month or two, i cant help myself but to revisit this game every damn day, listening to all of its soundtrack, watching people on youtube playing this to see how they feel while and after playing this game, or just looking for some fan fiction desperately, just to make me feel better. Because this game has this unbelievably "big emotional impact" and still become my favorite unforgettable game of all time. and as much as i love skyrim, i second it. well i can say that ive moved on from this game a while ago, but up until now, im actively avoiding anything related to that game since that gives me this familiar depressive feeling but hearthwarming that i craved so much.

    that game is "Life is Strange", and from what you stated above im looking forward to your great content and id really like to see you best this game in your own way. since forgotten city(mod) is a very wonderful thing in my skyrim gaming experience. Good luck to you and the team. i wish you all the best.
  3. cheshirerose247
    cheshirerose247
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    hi, I just wanted to say you truly give hope to people like me who want to eventually make a mod good enough to get noticed and become its own game. so thank you for that. also any advice for a newbie to the mod making scene like me?
  4. Ange5868
    Ange5868
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    Congratulations! The trailer gave me goose bumps - just Wow. I've played the mod a few times over now, absolutely loved it each time. I was worried that because of having already played the mod, and it's various outcomes, it might ruin that aspect of the game. Apparently not from what I see from the trailer. Nice Work!!
  5. Anduniel
    Anduniel
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    This is wonderful news, congrats! I'd been seeing news and excellent reviews of the mod since it came out. I haven't played it myself simply b/c it's Dwemer, just not interested in that (though if you'd made something like this in the Bosmer/Altmer or even Dunmer lore, I'd be all over it!). But I'll definitely be taking a look at this new game!
  6. dtrail
    dtrail
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    WOW! That's absolutely amazing! Seeing this great mod as a whole new game is really a big one! The trailer looks very nice! Looking forward to it.
  7. Norwood1
    Norwood1
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    Proof of the power of ideas.
  8. soulgamers
    soulgamers
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    Hi

    This sounds great. I was captivated with The Forgotten City Mod. so much so, I played and played through it six times.
    always finding another way to enjoy it.
    I will be on your tail, with my cash. come release date and time.
  9. shadedarcher001
    shadedarcher001
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    Loved the Forgotten City mod and will definitely look at this game at some point.

    I am wondering how close to the mod this game will be since the mod is already part of my base mod pack when I do a playthrough of Skyrim.

    Will people familiar with the mod be surprised or is this more or less the same as the mod?

    Don't get me wrong, it's a good, even great at times story as is, but is this something people who've played Forgotten City through are going to have a "behind the scenes" type understanding of or one where the story is close but shifts off in ways those familiar will not expect?
    1. TheModernStoryteller
      TheModernStoryteller
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      Good question. The game has been designed with players of the mod in mind, and retains the elements the community told us they loved, while improving every aspect and adding plenty of surprises: Walk the streets of a brand new city. Get to know new and re-imagined characters. Sink into original lore with fresh twists and endings. Enjoy added combat and wall-climbing mechanics, an all-new orchestral score, professional voice acting, and motion capture animations.
      You have no idea what you're in for. :-)
    2. AMStriker
      AMStriker
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      Wait a minute! I heard an advertisement on the Radio at work for a podcast about a guy that was hit in the face then went to E3. THAT WAS YOU! Then to find out that you also make mods is like twice as awesome! Glad some Aussies are getting games out there, you don't hear much about games from down under.

      I haven't actually got around to playing your mod yet (only started playing Skyrim this year and there's still so much in the base game to do). Would you recommend waiting for the steam version, or would it be beneficial to play the mod first, or does it not matter?

      All the best going forward!
    3. shadedarcher001
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      Sounds interesting.

      I was going to get a copy for my cousin who doesn't play "modded to hell" Skyrim like I do, but who likes mystery centered games before myself, but I will definitely pick one up for myself as well sooner rather than later.
  10. vronykah
    vronykah
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    Great article/interview. I loved learning about this game and knowing the story behind the maker. Looking forward to its release!
    1. ubronan
      ubronan
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      Cryengine too new really in 2018 they are at cryengine3 for a long time now....
      But i guess choosing an darn old engine makes it easier to work with.
      Another big dev has/had a aussie office as well 2K from borderlands the sequel.
      Nevertheless i read a lot of good comments about your mod, even though i never looked at it i wish you much succes in the game developer world
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